How the Gospel of Christ Relates to Those Who Passed On Without It

I had the opportunity to give a talk on this topic to a congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ in Orem, UT. The following is the transcript.

Brothers and sisters, can you think of a time when you were in a sticky situation? A situation where you needed to be in two places at once, or where you just couldn’t get somewhere fast enough? Or you just couldn’t do something by yourself? Were you able to call a close friend or family member to help? Do you remember the relief you felt as they came to the rescue? Do you remember how nice it was to have the weight lift off your shoulders as everything worked itself out? Do you remember how good it felt to have that friend or family member cheerfully respond to your plea for help, even though you knew it wasn’t convenient for them?

I have the opportunity to speak today about one of the great messages of hope and rescue that the gospel brings. It’s an aspect of the gospel that no other church has. It also sometimes gets overlooked in our church and is one that I personally take for granted. The topic is family history and performing ordinances vicariously for those that have already passed on. It fits perfectly with what Courtney and Cedar just spoke about: families and love.

For those of you who are visiting with us today or who are unfamiliar with family history, it is the process of gathering information about our ancestors and finding out who they are so that we can vicariously perform sacred ordinances in temples as proxies for them. These ordinances allow them to enjoy the blessings of the gospel in the afterlife even though they didn’t have an opportunity to receive them when they were alive.

The Prophet Joseph Smith said:

…suppose the case of two men, brothers, equally intelligent, learned, virtuous and lovely, walking in uprightness and in all good conscience, so far as they have been able to discern duty from the muddy stream of tradition, or from the blotted page of the book of nature.

One [of them] dies and is buried, having never heard the Gospel of reconciliation; to the other the message of salvation is sent, he hears and embraces it, and is made the heir of eternal life. Shall the one become the partaker of glory and the other be consigned to hopeless perdition? Is there no chance for his escape?

Outlined here is one of the great questions of life: is there no hope for those who pass away without having had a chance to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ? Joseph explains that there is a way for this first brother, and that it is through the ordinances performed by proxy in the temple. Though God is a just God in that each and every person must adhere to His commandments to receive the saving ordinances, He is also merciful, loving, and kind, not condemning those who never had an opportunity to do so before their sojourn on earth was through.

Of this, Joseph aptly said, “This doctrine appears glorious, inasmuch as it exhibits the greatness of divine compassion and benevolence in the extent of the plan of human salvation…This glorious truth is well calculated to enlarge the understanding, and to sustain the soul under troubles, difficulties and distresses.”

Brothers and sisters, I know that Heavenly Father loves us. Not only because of this beautiful doctrine, but because He has revealed it to us so that we may have peace and hope concerning our brothers and sisters who leave this life without a knowledge of Him.

One of the most amazing parts of this doctrine is that we have the power to help our ancestors in this way. By performing this work in the temple we are becoming “saviors on Mount Zion.” Note that the s in saviors is lowercase, for there is only one Savior; however, we are indeed performing a necessary work for our ancestors that they can no longer perform for themselves.

As Voltaire (and later a wise comic book character) once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It is up to us to perform this ever-important work. Joseph warned: “Those Saints who neglect it in behalf of their deceased relatives, do it at the peril of their own salvation.” This helps us realize that performing vicariously these saving ordinances is not just for our ancestors’ benefit, but also for our own.

Elder David A. Bednar, in an October 2011 General Conference address, promised the following:

As you respond in faith to this invitation, your hearts shall turn to the fathers. The promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be implanted in your hearts. Your patriarchal blessing, with its declaration of lineage, will link you to these fathers and be more meaningful to you. Your love and gratitude for your ancestors will increase. Your testimony of and conversion to the Savior will become deep and abiding. And I promise you will be protected against the intensifying influence of the adversary. As you participate in and love this holy work, you will be safeguarded…throughout your lives.

The benefits of family history work are not only spiritual. The following is an excerpt from an article in the New York Times by Bruce Feiler entitled “The Family Stories that Bind Us,” published March 15th, 2013:

…my dad called me to his bedside. There was a palpable sense of fear I couldn’t remember hearing before.

“Our family’s falling apart,” he said.

“No it’s not,” I said instinctively. “It’s stronger than ever.”

But lying in bed afterward, I began to wonder: Was he right? What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?

Myth-shattering research has reshaped our understanding of dinnertime, discipline and difficult conversations. … [In this research] a surprising theme [has] emerged. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.

I first heard this idea from Marshall Duke, a colorful psychologist at Emory University. In the mid-1990s, Dr. Duke was asked to help explore myth and ritual in American families.

“There was a lot of research at the time into the dissipation of the family,” he told me at his home in suburban Atlanta. “But we were more interested in what families could do to counteract those forces.”

Around that time, Dr. Duke’s wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities, noticed something about her students.

“The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges,” she said.

Her husband was intrigued, and along with a colleague, Robyn Fivush, set out to test her hypothesis. They developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.

Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

…Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

…The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.

I believe that there is eternal truth at the heart of these doctors’ research that can be summarized by Malachi chapter four, verse six, which says: “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”

Perhaps the greatest blessing, though, is the joy we feel when we participate in the Lord’s work. President Joseph F. Smith once said, “Through our efforts in their behalf their chains of bondage will fall from them, and the darkness surrounding them will clear away, that light may shine upon them and they shall hear in the spirit world of the work that has been done for them by their children here, and will rejoice with you in their performance of these duties.”

We taste of the joy that President Joseph F. Smith is talking about when we do missionary work. In fact, family history work can be considered missionary work for the dead. Both involve bringing the gospel to those who did not have it before. Both involve some sort of sacrifice on our part. Both involve faith.

This month’s special message from President Monson (the current prophet and president of the Church) is entitled “Hastening the Work.” When I think of hastening work, I think about working extra hard at the end of the day to make sure that everything is done; I think about expending extra effort in the ninth inning of a close baseball game between rival teams; I think about scrambling to finish an exam before the exam center closes. The Lord has said through His prophets that He is hastening His work in these times. This is not limited to full-time missionary service. President Monson reminds us that “The Lord has never…indicated that His work is confined to mortality. Rather, His work embraces eternity.” Temple ordinances for the dead, therefore, are a vital part of this work.

If you’ve never done family history work before, that’s OK. Neither have I. Now is a great time to start. President Monson said:

We are going to make mistakes, but none of us can become an expert in family history work without first being a novice. Therefore, we must plunge into this work, and we must prepare for some uphill climbing. This is not an easy task, but the Lord has placed it upon you, and He has placed it upon me.

As you pursue family history work, you are going to find yourself running into roadblocks, and you are going to say to yourself, “There is nothing else I can do.” When you come to that point, get down on your knees and ask the Lord to open the way, and He will open the way for you. I testify that this is true.

The Lord has already provided us with many valuable resources to aid in His work. The Church’s website is a wonderful place to start. Within minutes after logging in, I was reading stories written by my ancestors, seeing their pictures, and realizing that they are real people who had lives and experiences just like we do. This morning I happened upon an experience written by my great-grandfather, George Samuel Romney, that recounted one of his brother’s journeys through the Mexican wilderness. This brother, Miles Archibald Romney, befriended a dog who would not stop following him. As he camped for the night and slept, he awoke to the growling of the dog and discovered that there was a thief approaching him with “a huge dagger with which he expected to strike the deadly blow.” Miles quickly readied his rifle and warned the intruder that he would defend himself if necessary. Frightened, the thief fled. The story concludes:

Miles, when he was left alone with the dog he gave him a fond caress while tears of gratitude glistened in his eyes there in the moonlight. The attempt of the bandit had been frustrated and a life had been saved by the growl of a dog. … [Upon resuming his journey in the morning] he cast a backward glance [and] to his astonishment the dog could not be seen. For several miles he followed back the trail but his faithful friend could not be found. As mysteriously as the animal had come into the life of the traveler did it pass out again. Surely, thought my brother as he pushed on toward home there is an unseen power protecting the lives of men from dangers of which they are unaware…

My faith was strengthened by reading this story. And thanks to modern technology, with a few clicks of the mouse I was able to see that all the temple work for Miles had been completed a few years ago.

Our ancestors need our help. President Monson said, “We, as spirit children of our Heavenly Father, were sent to earth at this time that we might participate in hastening this great work… Our job is to search out our dead and then go to the temple and perform the sacred ordinances that will bring those beyond the veil the same opportunities we have.”

If you’d like to learn more about family history, I encourage you to attend the Family History Sunday School class that starts next week.

Brothers and sisters, though I am very new to family history work, I can already testify of the additional blessings we will receive and will allow our ancestors to receive if we participate. I know that the plan of salvation is a selfless plan of love. I know that Jesus Christ is our Savior. In his name, the name of Jesus Christ, amen.